The final Sunday of the NFL season with multiple games is upon us.
And by the end of the day, we’ll know which two teams will play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12.
The excitement begins with the top two seeds in the NFC squaring off, followed by a rematch of last season’s AFC championship game. While the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs once again play for a berth in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers are in the conference championship for a second straight season as well.
With the Bengals, Chiefs and 49ers all playing again on Championship Sunday, this marks the first time in a decade and just the fourth time in more than 40 years that three teams are playing in consecutive championship games in the NFL playoffs.
Although both the Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles captured their conference’s top seed and have home-field advantage, their opponents have been playing some of the NFL’s best football over the past few months, with the Bengals reeling off 10 straight wins since their last blemish on Halloween and the 49ers piling up 12 consecutive victories since their last setback.
We’ll take a look at both championship games and identify some pivotal matchups that could shape who plays for the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks.
San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET)
- Projected Winner: Philadelphia
- Win Probability: 70.0%
- Key Matchup: Philadelphia’s tackles vs. Nick Bosa
The Eagles and 49ers have essentially been on a collision course to meet in the NFC championship game for months. Granted things looked a little shaky for Philadelphia late in the season when Jalen Hurts sprained his right shoulder against the Chicago Bears, but the star quarterback regained his MVP form in the Eagles’ dominant 38-7 rout of the New York Giants last Saturday in a divisional-round game.
After a somewhat uneven performance against the Giants in the regular-season finale, Hurts and the Eagles overwhelmed that same defense in the postseason rematch. Philadelphia scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions and had amassed 258 yards of offense by halftime to put the game away.
Replicating that performance against San Francisco will be a tall order.
The underdog 49ers have made things easier on rookie quarterback Brock Purdy by ranking first in the NFL in scoring defense (16.3 points per game) as well as total defense (300.6 yards per game). They’re also third in the defensive EVE (Efficiency Versus Expected) rankings. After a 41-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks in the wild-card round, they limited the Dallas Cowboys to seven plays of 10 or more yards – tied for their fewest all season – in a 19-12 divisional-round win.
Fred Warner and Deommodore Lenoir each intercepted Dak Prescott once and although the Niners only sacked him once, they pressured Prescott 17 times – their ninth game of the season registering at least that many QB pressures.
Hurts has rarely faced pressure like that this season.
Part of that reason stems from the fact he hasn’t faced many defenses as relentless as San Francisco’s, but he also plays behind an offensive line that boasts three Pro Bowlers, anchored by center Jason Kelce.
The Eagles have registered a 33.9 pressure-allowed rate this season – the sixth lowest in the NFL – and on only three occasions was Hurts pressured 17 or more times in a game. As you might imagine, the MVP finalist wasn’t as dangerous in those contests.
In the three games Hurts was pressured at least 17 times, he averaged 238.3 passing yards with two total touchdown passes and one interception for an 88.7 passer rating. He has a 105.3 rating in his other 13 games this season. While his passing was down, his running totals were also lower in those three games. He rushed for a total of 126 yards with one touchdown on 35 attempts for an average of 3.6 yards per carry. He has an average of 4.8 yards per rush in his other 13 games.
San Francisco’s objective will be to try to get Hurts off his game and give him little time to find his receivers and running backs. That mission begins with Nick Bosa. Not only did Bosa lead the NFL in the standard stats – sacks (18.5) and QB knockdowns (49.5 – which was 19 more than the next-closest player in the Las Vegas Raiders’ Maxx Crosby) – he also was among the league leaders in advanced stats.
Bosa’s QB knockdown rate of 11.8% tops the 46 edge rushers with at least 200 pass rushes, while his pressure rate of 24.1% ranks fifth and his adjusted sack rate of 5.1% comes in at eighth. It’s no wonder he’s been named a finalist for AP Defensive Player of the Year.
Tackles Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson are responsible for keeping Bosa out of Hurts’ face. Johnson has been named to his fourth Pro Bowl and is as good as they come at right tackle. He has not permitted a sack this season while posting a pressure-allowed rate of 2.8% – the second best among the 33 right tackles with at least 175 plays in pass protection. The league average pressure-allowed rate among right tackles is 9.2%.
Mailata hasn’t enjoyed the same success as his counterpart, posting an 11.7 pressure-allowed rate – the fourth worst among the 33 left tackles with 175 or more plays in pass protection. The NFL average pressure-allowed rate among left tackles is 8.8%.
Mailata, however, likely won’t be asked to deal with Bosa alone. Lining up to Mailata’s right is another Pro Bowler in Landon Dickerson. The Eagles will likely plan to have Dickerson help Mailata when Bosa is lined up on their side. Dickerson registered a pressure-allowed rate of 3.8% – the best among the 30 left guards with at least 175 plays in pass protection.
One other advantage Philadelphia has is that while Bosa led the league in sacks, he accounted for nearly half of San Francisco’s 44. No one else on the 49ers has more than five sacks and the end who lines opposite Bosa, Samson Ebukam, posted a below-average 14.9 pressure rate.
It will be a chess match in the trenches at Lincoln Financial Field. While the 49ers are scheming to neutralize Hurts, the Eagles aim to game plan around Bosa. Whoever comes out winning this battle will likely find themselves playing again in two weeks in Glendale, Arizona.
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET)
- Projected Winner: Kansas City
- Win Probability: 74.5%
- Key Matchup: Cincinnati’s defensive line vs. Patrick Mahomes
Much has been made of this being the fourth meeting in the last 56 weeks between the Bengals and Chiefs with Joe Burrow going 3-0 against Patrick Mahomes in the first three matchups – including a 27-24 overtime victory at Arrowhead Stadium in last season’s AFC championship game.
That would’ve been the leading storyline heading into Sunday’s showdown had it not been for what transpired late in the first quarter in Kansas City’s 27-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in a divisional-round game last Saturday.
As you all know by now, Patrick Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain when he was landed on by a Jacksonville pass rusher, forcing him to the locker room. Only after X-rays were negative did he re-enter to start the second half and help the Chiefs secure a fifth straight year of hosting the AFC title game.
It was initially feared that the injury could put his availability against the Bengals into question, but he’s been a full participant in practice this week and will be on the field come Sunday.
The question remains, however, will he be at all limited by ankle?
Mahomes is known for using his athleticism to scramble and extend plays, but will the ankle curb his mobility and force him to stay in the pocket?
While that is certainly a concern for the Chiefs, the thing is, Mahomes is still a pretty darn good quarterback. In fact, he’s actually put up better numbers – both compared to himself and league averages – when throwing from the pocket.
Named a finalist for The Associated Press 2022 NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year awards on Wednesday, Mahomes passed for a career-high and league-leading 5,250 yards and NFL-best 41 touchdowns.
No quarterback has attempted more passes on the move this season than Mahomes’ 126 – he is one of only three QBs, along with the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert (115) and Seahawks’ Geno Smith (102) to attempt more than 100 throws on the move. But as you can see in this first chart, this same quarterback who appears to be on his way to a second MVP award put up rather pedestrian numbers when throwing on the move.
Although a mobile Mahomes is a big part of Kansas City’s offense, you can bet Andy Reid will figure out a way to move the ball down the field if his quarterback isn’t as fleet of foot.
And although creating on the move is part of what makes Mahomes and the Chiefs dangerous, he’s actually fared better in some advanced metrics while stationary, as you can see in this second chart.
Again, we don’t know exactly how much Mahomes’ ankle is bothering him, but one thing you can count on is the Bengals will do everything they can to find out.
Although Cincinnati doesn’t have a pass rush that has garnered as much attention as the other three teams playing on Championship Sunday, the team excels at regularly putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Despite finishing with the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL this season with a mere 30, the Bengals still rank in the top third of the league in some advanced statistics, recording a pressure rate of 40.4% to rank 11th while their 97 QB knockdowns were also 11th.
Josh Allen witnessed first-hand last week the tenacity of Cincinnati’s defensive front, as the Bengals registered a 51.1% pressure rate, flummoxing the MVP finalist as Cincy rolled to an emphatic 27-10 win over the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round after sneaking past the Baltimore Ravens a week earlier.
Edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and tackle B.J. Hill led the attack on Allen and will now look to hound Mahomes, who is already plenty familiar with Cincinnati’s pass rush.
In the Bengals’ 27-24 home win over the Chiefs in Week 13, Cincinnati recorded a pressure rate of 45.2%, with Hendrickson leading the charge with a 31.3 pressure rate. A year ago in the win at Arrowhead that sent the Bengals to the Super Bowl, Hendrickson was credited with 1.5 sacks on Mahomes while registering a pressure rate of 34.8%.
Hendrickson may only have eight sacks on the season, but he’s a game-changer on the edge, grading out as one of the top players at his position and has been selected to a second straight Pro Bowl.
Hendrickson’s pressure rate of 27.6% trails only Dallas Cowboys AP Defensive Player of the Year finalist Micah Parsons’ 28.0 for the best in the NFL among the 46 edge rushers with at least 200 pass rushes. He also hurries the QB on 18.5% of all his pass rushes, again second only to Parsons at 20.1%, while his knockdown rate of 9.1 is the second in the NFL behind Bosa.
It’s no secret what the Bengals will attempt to do on Sunday – put pressure on Mahomes and take as many shots as they can on him to test his dinged-up ankle. If the ankle isn’t an issue as Mahomes insists and he’s able to move around without any problem, it would completely open up Kansas City’s playbook.
However, as we noted, the offense might not see any sort of drop-off in production if Mahomes isn’t his usual mobile self and is forced to just throw out of the pocket.